Monday, January 5, 2009

Old 97's, "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue" (#1)

"Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue"
(Ken Bethea/Murry Hammond/Rhett Miller/Philip Peeples)
Old 97's
Blame It on Gravity

Rhett Miller gets most of the press--what little press the Old 97's get, that is, since you rarely hear about them in magazines or the blogosphere. But Murry Hammond, the band's oldest member and bass player extraordinaire, has been quietly writing increasingly amazing songs over the past decade. He's got some classics; "Valentine" is a fan favorite, and "Up the Devil's Pay" is a rollicking good time.

But "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue" is the first time that he's ever bested Miller at his own game. Lacking his bandmate's androgynous good looks and swaggering heartbreak, Hammond has to rely instead on a sweet melancholy, something that's sad but not really all that sad.

He's usually fairly straightforward, but "Color" is all texture, with no plot to speak of--at least not a decipherable one. In its way, it fits in with his classic theme, which is of the family man who hops a train and regrets it. (I wonder what his wife, voice actor Grey DeLisle, thinks of all those songs.) But the regret is soft and hazy, as if the narrator can't even remember why he feels it.

So Hammond gives us some of his very best lyrics ("Stars go off like flashpot dots / They sparkle under candle, power, and stop" is one of my favorites) and a subtle and understated vocal performance (you must get this song from iTunes, if only to hear the way he sings "young and foolish days" in the first chorus). The rest of the band stays quiet for the most part--they're all playing but none of them demand the spotlight at all. This is Hammond's show, and the most any of them are willing to intrude is the guitar noise Bethea softly showers over everything like an ocean mist.

The first time I heard this song, I listened to it five times in a row. Then I called my (then-future-) fiancee on the phone and made her listen to it twice. It still feels new. It's a deep black hole that you didn't realize was in your soul and that you don't particularly want to fill.

A note: Doing 25 individual posts has been both pretentious and unbelievably tiring for me. Rest assured that next year I will do only a few posts, perhaps five songs at a time, with briefer write-ups on each one. God bless those of you who actually read all of these. I hope they inspired you to check out something you hadn't checked out before.

Seriously, by the way, download "Color of a Lonely Heart."


Your Boyfriend Sucks said...

First time I heard it was live, I hadn't gotten around to getting the album yet. Since it was a rocking number most of the audience started talking to themselves. Even though it was the noisest the crowd had been since the set started, I heard nothing but Murry singing. A classic on the first listen.

Michial said...

Now, see, I didn't like it as much live. But that's probably because I'd already listened to the record so many times, and it just wasn't as full or soft live. But I was very excited that they played it.